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Emerson Spartz is Moneyballing Innovation

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If you’re a baseball fan, you know what Moneyballing is. If you’re movie fan, you probably know too. Based on the book by Michael Lewis about the unprecedented success of the Oakland A’s baseball team (and later made into a great Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt film), the concept is pretty simple — using outcomes-based data, rather than intuition, to guide our actions.

The result of this shift was revolutionary in baseball — they’d taken a centuries-old methodology of intuition-based scouting of players and “let’s take a chance on that kid” gut thinking and ripped it apart in a single season. Their method was simple: instead of focusing on stats that traditionally were seen as useful and their personal impressions of players, they simply started looking at stats that correlated with winning games.

As I listened to dozens of cutting-edge speakers talk about how they’re doing innovation in most leading corporations today, I can’t help but think we’re still in the pre-Moneyball era. Sure, we’re trying to put structures around our innovation teams and get customer feedback at every step of the way, but at the end of the day this stuff is still largely based on our intuition. “We heard this from the customers, so this is our best guess at what satisfies their needs.” Sometimes we’re right. Usually we’re not.

That is, except for Emerson Spartz. Emerson Spartz has been right over, and over, and over, and will continue to be right until the rest of us catch up.

Spartz is the founder of Dose, a media company specializing in really one thing: making content go viral. Or, in layman’s terms, creating things that have resounding success compared to the very similar things around it.

He and his team have figured out two bizarre things:


a)     In today’s world of shareable content, the difference between “great” and “good” isn’t a 10% or 50% increase. Exceptionally great content will have 10x, 100x+ the success of nearly identical “good” content.

b)    You, me, and Emerson can’t predict exceptionally great content. We can only throw it at the wall and see what sticks.

For a guy that repeatedly creates the internet’s most-liked content, he’s not very good at coming up with it. That’s okay, though, he says — you don’t have to be. Instead, he’s a developed a way to test dozens of different variations in the actual market and see which ones have legs.

There are no focus groups involved, he says, because people in focus groups lie. Or they try and tell the truth, but in the real world, act differently than even they thought they would. Only through testing something in a real environment can we find these unexpectedly great products.

Now, it’s one thing to do this for online content, where you can get customer feedback in minutes, risks are zero, and you can create limitless prototypes for almost nothing. We have a long way to go before we can use this approach in most other industries.

But, until we figure out how to adopt this method, know that we’re still just grizzled baseball scouts saying, “I like the look of his swing.” Emerson Spartz, on the other hand, is walking home with the Commissioner’s Trophy.

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